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An interview with author John Grant on nurturing a culture of wellness

John Grant was a founder of the London creative agency St Luke’s. He is now writing an explosive new book on workplace wellness. He talks to StepJockey co-founder Paul Nuki about the corporate wellness revolution coming our way.

You are one of the best known names in advertising, an industry more associated with hard living than health. Where did your interest in wellness emerge from?

I was interested in yoga, vegetarianism, eastern philosophy and so on from my teens onwards. I suppose you could say that led to me becoming a corporate hippy. Yes advertising has that reputation but the agency I co founded in the 1990's (St Lukes) was focused on wellbeing, sustainability and pioneered the "free range" office that has since become common in tech companies and co working spaces. And in fact the agency I work for now (iris) won several Britain's Healthiest Company awards. So I guess there are exceptions to the Madman image of long lunches and hard deadlines!

Many people see wellness as either competitive sport or company yoga classes. In your new book you describe it as something much bigger, more to do with company culture, a corporate attitude, more joined up. Tell us a bit about that.

Workplace wellbeing programmes have become near universal. It's only natural to want to help your people cope on this always-on world. These include a wide range of activities including fitness but also mindfulness, sleep classes, healthy food, email curfews... What I wanted to track in the book is how this experience of work becoming human friendly has seeped into business strategy, innovation, supply chain - the business end. We are seeing companies like Unilever, Vodafone, Deloitte making wellbeing core to their way of doing business and their purpose. I see this as enabled or even caused by a desire to make work itself more human friendly. Once you see business as not just a machine whirring to produce financial results but rather as a human community or living system everything else changes. It’s a big shift. Of course big corporates are not perfect or utopian but they are awakening in a way so sudden and sweeping it reminds me a little of Glasnost or Arab Spring. It’s no surprise for instance to see global corporations like Starbucks, AirBnB and Microsoft speaking out on political issues like Trump's travel ban. They see their role as being a force for good.

In your view, where does company wellness start and where does it end?

At the moment it tends to start on the yoga mat or the volunteering programme or with staff activating the office stairs with your very own StepJockey… and it ends in the boardroom with directors asking questions like 'what and who are we really here for?' But slowly more company Boards are now taking the initiative. And  that’s perfect as the evidence is clear that wellness works best when led from the top.

Lots of companies aspire to creating a culture of wellness but end up with a benefits hub full of little-used discount vouchers. What are these businesses doing wrong?

Like StepJockey, it is effectively a change programme or campaign that includes incentives. And a great brand too. In many ways what is needed is better internal marketing (and money off vouchers are the 'small change' in how brands can galvanise movements).

There is a big debate going on at the moment about the pros and cons of open plan offices and hot desking. It's all a bit binary. Soulless and distracting versus sharing and meritocratic. Where do you stand?

Open is good. With nice views and natural air. Studies of human universals (eg by Donald Brown) show that as a species we love open landscapes and broad horizons. It is good for collaboration too. However lean (ie. sparse) is not so good. A recent study by psychologists of fancy modernist offices (PWC More London for instance) found adding potted plants in view of every employee increased productivity and even scores in IQ and memory tests by 15%. The psychologists compared lean environments to putting an ant in a jam jar.

A lot of great people charged with promoting wellness in the workplace get very frustrated trying to engage people beyond the sporty 10% who sign up for everything. What are the tips and tricks to getting more broad-based engagement?

There is no magic bullet. But one thing I found in developing a workplace eco engagement scheme is it is powerful to give people real autonomy; in that case we let people nominate their own charities and causes rather than dictate them from above. If the goal is increased physical activity then volunteering could be one approach - for instance like Good Gym combining social work with exercise. But you could also put in ping pong and roof-top gardening. Not everyone wants to go to a gym style class and some people hate the idea of performing in front of others. You have to respect that. Last, finding time efficient activities that people can integrate into their working day is important. We spend eight hours or more at work and you’ve got to utilise that.

How important is a grounding in behavioural economics to creating successful wellness cultures? Any suggested reading?

I think it is fantastically helpful. There are so many hints tips and angles in books like Nudge. The previous UK government did a great round-up of learnings that can be applied to communications and behaviour change which is still available here. And one of the best round-ups of behavioural tricks for which there is a solid evidence base is called Mindspace.

As you say, the academic literature stresses the importance of leadership in corporate wellness. But often company boards are led by 'Alphas' who see anything less than an ironman before breakfast as a bit limp. How do you deal with that?

I’m not sure the ‘alpha’ thing is such a problem, at least on this issue. There is a compelling business case: your number one concern is (typically according to PWC's 2016 global CEO survey) the skills gap. Half the workforce by 2020 will be millennials. And survey after survey confirms that the two key things this generation want from an employer across the world are work-life balance and to work for a company with a broader social purpose. It’s a real wake up call for instance that as a result US business school grads' number one choice of employer previously was working in banking and now their favoured destination is tech companies where they can have a much more Googly experience. Hence Goldman Sachs and many others  are all over these agendas. We don’t need to wait for the millennial generation to run the companies, nor for every business culture in China, Turkey, Latam to become western-liberal. It’s simple common sense. Want millennial talent? Then you need to get on the wellness bus.

Tell us about a business you know of that has really got it right on wellness and why. And perhaps one that has flopped. What are the lessons to sustaining a culture of wellness at scale?

Google might be a discussion point on both fronts. They have got so many things right. Their workplace vision is simply to create spaces that sustain life, that people look forward to every morning. And they have a whole specialist team looking at HR issues from a science, ethnography and data led perspective. But I also know from talking to a few insiders that it can be a struggle even given all of that to keep it human and look after people as they grow so ambitiously and on so many new fronts.

I think it’s helpful sometimes to look at all of this as a bit like parenting. The most important thing is to get the work environment and culture right from the start, so people have the best opportunity to naturally thrive. You can't ‘learn people’ and you can’t ‘well’ them. But if you embed the fundamentals you can scale, or justify the spend in a year when financial results dip. A more ad hoc approach to wellness is more effortful and harder to scale.

Talking about the basics, healthy building certifications like the Well Building Standard and FitWell are catching on fast. They aim to do for human health what sustainability certifications have done for energy bills and emissions. How important do you think the physical office environment is to employee health and why?

I think this is a fantastic development. I’ve seen the amazing effect of green buildings certifications in the sustainability space. Not only encouraging companies to compete for the ‘cool’ factor of a LEED Platinum building but driving innovation. And crucially getting developers and engineers talking to end users and other stakeholders about their needs. Plus raising the basic standards and expectations of a whole industry. Sick Building Syndrome is surprisingly common and I think this could well be a key approach to tackling it.

Return on investment is rightly a major determinant of corporate spend but in the area of wellness it can be hard to measure, not least because there are so many tangential benefits - better team-working, morale, loyalty etc. How should corporates measure success?

You do need KPIs. But they don’t have to be financial. Samsung for instance has committed to Michael Porter’s shared value concept in measuring themselves against social value as well as financial value. Like Deloitte and others, they are taking the UN Sustainable Development Goals as an objective way to benchmark themselves. And to be clear this isn’t responsibility or charity activity. It is core business operations measured against these two definitions of success, broken down into 10 or so key measurable objectives.

At a micro level it’s helpful to have a proxy measure, a beneficial business side effect. For instance First Direct wanted to encourage people to walk, cycle and take the bus rather than drive to work. It didn’t hurt in justifying imaginative programmes (for instance one I loved was filling half the car park over half term with a massive fun fair) that each car parking space was costing them £1,000 a year in land and security. As I mentioned earlier, attracting and retaining talent can be a key business outcome. So can collaborations – there is a brilliant analysis in a book called the Social Life of Information of how apparently incidental and social activities in the workplace can drive step changes in innovation and sales revenue.

If there was just one message you would like readers to take away from your new book, what would it be?

Be encouraged. There are millions just like you who value wellbeing and don’t see why the main thing we all do with our time should not be a force for healthy fulfilled lives, and thriving communities. Now is the time and YOU are the next workplace wellbeing champion. Here’s some inspiration that I hope you can apply in your own initiatives. Let’s share and start a movement.

Find out more about John's new book 'Better'.